Star Trek: The Next Generation appeared on Netflix instant queue last week. Now I was a Science Fiction nerd growing up; my mom and I used to watch Star Trek and late-night episodes of Doctor Who together. We'd take a rainy Saturday afternoon and watch Alien or The Thing or Star Wars while my Dad grumbled about it all being "unrealistic" (his standard for realism is the early 007 movies with Sean Connery as Bond).
When I went back to undergrad after taking a few years to grow up I learned that everything looks different to you when you look at it from an adult perspective. I think grad school may have influenced my viewpoint in the same way, but that's a thought for another time. The point is that Star Trek: The Next Generation looks an lot different from where I stand now than it did 15 or 20 years ago.
The first thing I noticed in my return to The Next Generation was how truly clever the "Captain's Log, Stardate 43579.2..." opener is. The typical rule in stage and film is "show, don't tell." Whatever you can accomplish within the action should happen in the action. Shows like Law and Order, that always take place in New York City can get away with an action intro followed by a witty one-liner from Lenny Briscoe, but an individual episode of Star Trek could be taking place anywhere in a vast, imagined galaxy. Captain Picard tells us where the Enterprise is, what the crew is doing and who is likely to be featured in this episode, and introduces the main plot of the episode. It doesn't feel out of place at all; the Captain making a log entry seems like a perfectly natural part of the story. Having watched most of the way into Season 2 in the past week and a half, I can tell you that the best part about this trick is that The Next Generation uses it all the time!
I really wanted to give you some video examples, but I am having trouble locating the specific scenes I have in mind. I'll give you two lines that occur in almost every episode that express the point:
The Enterprise is in a bad situation and has to get somewhere fast: "Warp 5 Ensign...Engage!" [Sound FX]
The Enterprise is in a bad situation and is under attack: "They are firing Captain!" [Camera Shake]
Further, the communication between the Enterprise and an Away Team often involves this sort of "telling" rather than showing on one side of the conversation:
"Picard to Away Team, Mr. LaForge has completed the modifications on the [technological marvel] so that we can attempt a [technobabble that means solve the problem]."
Think about how much they just told you without doing anything. Splice in a shot of LaForge fiddling with some power conduits and you have just made a major breakthrough in starship engineering. Splice it in right after Worf says "They are firing Captain!"
The answer might be that we are primed to accept it. In previous episodes we've seen the other parts of the story. We've seen Geordi running around in engineering and fiddling with complicated looking gadgets. We've seen Riker, Worf, and Data on the planet solving the puzzles or having a phaser fight with Romulans. We've seen the Enterprise moving at warp speed, or in a space battle, or orbiting a planet. Once we've seen these visuals it becomes easier for the writers to move that scene into the background. I think this is a major contributor to the two best things about Star Trek: The Next Generation; the amazing character development that they manage on more than 10 major recurring characters, and the amount of content they are able to fit into a 50 minute show. Watch an episode if you don't believe me, you'll see that there's almost no wasted content.
Sure, not every episode is a masterpiece, but I'm consistently amazed by the subtleties that went into making it (at least in my opinion) one of the best T.V. shows ever.
Oh...and for my one or two loyal readers...more to come.